Overview of Companies Applying Advanced Biotechnology to Biofuels

The strategies described in the earlier entries in this blog are being pursued by a number of companies in the U.S. and elsewhere to bring about improvements in the commercial production of ethanol, biodiesel and other biofuels. In the next several entries, I’ll discuss the companies that are pursuing biotech strategies to produce the different classes of biofuels. In each entry  I’ll focus on one industry sector, and I’ll analyze the issues facing the use of biotechnology in that sector, I’ll assess the prospects for commercial success, and I’ll provide brief profiles of the companies actively developing modified organisms or conducting biotechnology R&D within that sector. 

The companies I’ll be focusing on are all in the category one can call “technology providers”, specifically biological technology providers, and these companies generally fill a well-defined niche in the industry, and their technologies play well-defined roles in the fuel production lifecycle. The existing infrastructure for production of ethanol and other biofuels includes companies across the whole spectrum of activities including growing and harvesting the feedstocks, pretreating the biomass, operating the fermentation or other conversion process, separating and purifying the resulting fuel, and finally storing, selling and transporting the fuel. The companies I’ll be profiling are all creating or developing improvements in any of three particular phases of the production process: 

  • improving the cellulosic or leafy plants or other vegetative material that are the feedstocks for fuel production.
  • improving methods of treatment or pretreatment of the biomass.
  • improving the microorganisms, algae or enzymes that perform or catalyze the fuel manufacturing process.

It is true that the biofuels industry includes technology developers other than those I’ll be profiling, particularly including companies developing improvements in chemical or physical processes that are used at various points in biofuel manufacture, but my focus here is on improved biological technologies. I would also note that many of these “biotechnology providers” are also developing technological improvements in other aspects of the production process, such as the downstream processing steps, further blurring the lines between different categories of companies. Such activities are also an example of the kinds of interesting routes to diversification that many companies are taking to maximize their chances for success in the market, a strategy I’ll discuss in later installments of the blog. 

I’ll also try to observe a further distinction among the biological technology providers. Ethanol, biodiesel and other fuels can be, and have historically been, produced without the use of advanced technology, utilizing many types of organic biomass not having any special properties (notably including waste materials of many kinds) and utilizing naturally-occurring, non-selected varieties of microorganisms or algae. For the most part I will not discuss those companies in the biofuels business that are using or selling nonproprietary components, naturally occurring microorganisms, or traditionally-bred plant varieties, and instead I will be directing my attention to those companies that are using or developing proprietary compositions, methods and techniques using genetic engineering or other advanced biotechnology. However, this is not a bright line distinction, and some of the companies profiled, particularly in the algae sector, are using naturally occurring organisms that have been selected or enhanced using traditional techniques rather than by genetic engineering. With regard to the microorganism and algae companies, I will generally include a company if the organism central to its commercial process is genetically modified, selected or enhanced in any way, or is otherwise “proprietary” to the company. With regard to new plant feedstocks, I will not include companies that are developing or selling plant varieties developed using conventional crop breeding methods, but only those that are developing genetically engineered plants, or that are using biotech methodologies to aid or enhance traditional breeding. 

The entries that follow will summarize the following sectors of the industry:

  • Modified microorganisms for ethanol production.
  • Modified microorganisms for butanol or isobutanol production.
  • Modified microorganisms (including “synthetic” microbes) for production of biodiesel, jet fuels, and other petroleum-based fuels.
  • Use of modified microorganisms or plants to manufacture industrial enzymes.
  • Modified algae for biofuel production (biodiesel, jet fuel, ethanol and other fuels).
  • Modification of traditional plant feedstocks (e.g. for ethanol production).
  • Modification of new or alternative plant feedstocks for production of ethanol or biodiesel.

The company profiles in the entries that will follow are based on publicly-available information, and include descriptions that have been adapted or excerpted from company websites. URLs will be provided for all profiled companies.

D. Glass Associates, Inc. is a consulting company specializing in several fields of biotechnology. David Glass, Ph.D. is a veteran of nearly thirty years in the biotech industry, with expertise in patents, technology licensing, industrial biotechnology regulatory affairs, and market and technology assessments. This blog provides back-up and expanded content to complement a presentation Dr. Glass made at the EUEC 2010 conference on February 2, 2010 entitled “Prospects for the Use of Genetic Engineering in Biofuel Production.” The slides from that presentation are available at www.slideshare.net/djglass99.

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3 thoughts on “Overview of Companies Applying Advanced Biotechnology to Biofuels

  1. We have spent over $2.5 billion dollars on algae research for the last 35 years and nothing to show for it. Algae has been researched to death at universities for the last 50 years in the US. The problem is as long as the algae researchers can say we are 3-5 years away, its too expensive and they need more research they get the grant money. Nothing will ever get commercialized at the university level.

    The question you need to be asking is ” Does the US really want to get off of foreign oil or do we want to continue to fund the algae researchers at the universities.”

    • Thank you for your comment. I’m of course aware that a lot of time and money has gone in to algae research over the last several decades without a great deal of progress in making algal biofuels more economically or technically feasible. But I’m not advocating for “more of the same”, and my observations really address two very different aspects of the problem. First, consistent with the focus of this blog, there is a chance that the newer, more powerful biotechnologies, particularly approaches like synthetic biology and metabolic engineering, may make the difference and finally make at least some algal biofuel processes economically feasible. I’m not naive, and I know there are no guarantees of success (and I know that there are significant technical limitations to overcome). And of course you have every right to be skeptical, but it is possible that these technologies could accomplish what was not possible in the past.

      But second, although I am a big supporter of the value of basic research, I am not advocating nor even reporting on the prospects or need for additional funding to the academic research community. Instead, I’m looking at the commercial interest in algal biofuels, which is being funded by venture capital and only partially by the government, and which has been “validated” in a sense by several of the large research agreements and partnerships between small algal biofuel companies and larger energy companies (e.g. ExxonMobil and Synthetic Genomics; Dow and Algenol, etc.). Again, I understand that there is no guarantee of success, and all of this may come to nothing. But there is a lot of interest and momentum in this field which I don’t think has been seen in the past, and I suspect that the quality of the science and business expertise that is now being applied in this sector of the industry far surpasses what has been done in the past.

      Finally, I don’t agree with the way you’ve posed your final question, because it is clear that the US government’s strategy to eliminate our dependence on foreign oil does not consist solely of a desire to “continue to fund the algae researchers at the universities”. To the extent the government is getting involved, there are grants and tax breaks going to companies that are working hard to make algal fuels and other renewable transportation fuels a reality. Sure, university algae researchers are still getting grants, but that is far from the entire story, and far from being the government’s focus in promoting renewable fuels.

      David Glass

  2. The last thing we need are federal contractors building algae plants on Cost Plus contracts. I urge you to compare the initial contract prices to the final costs in SAIC and General Atomics agreements, to name a few. Another area you might want to investigate are labor charges that increase substantially if the original completion date is not met. You need to investigate the incestuous relationships between the DOE, DARPA, DOD, NREL and the USDA, and their relationships with grant recipients. You need to ask why is all this taxpayer monies going for research and NOT commercialization (algae production). You also need to investigate the paper trail of these same algae researchers receiving grant money and then quietly setting up their own private businesses.

    An investigation needs to be started immediately at all government agencies involved with algae grants to see who is getting all the research grants and their close relationships between the government, algae researchers and federal contractors. Apparently, there is not yet a ‘master list’ itemizing the grant award amounts, recipients and specific projects.

    We encourage you strongly to do some investigative work and see how much USC – San Diego and General Atomics have received in algae related research grants and nothing has been commercialized to date. Look at the massive amounts given to universities for research nationwide vs. no monies given for real algae production companies in the US. Also, the airlines do not want Boeing involved in brokering algae jet fuel to them. They have enough problems building aircraft. Boeing’s response – slowly and quietly, move groups and divisions to China!

    The question you need to be asking is ” Does the US really want to get off of foreign oil or do we want to continue to fund the algae researchers at the universities.” The problem is we can grow, harvest and extract algae today with all “off-the-shelf” proven technology. We no not need genetic modification at all when there are existing algae strains currently on the market with 30-60% oil content. Algae production requires far less land and water than any other terrestrial crop (see page 194 of the DOE’s National Algal Biofuels Technology Roadmap), which has the farmers in an uproar right now. The ethanol credits went away, allegedly shutting down an industry – can it really be that without the tax credit, years of time, effort and expense will be for naught, leaving us with unedible genetically modified corn fields? The DOE is still awarding grants for algae pond research when it was established years ago that all algae ponds get contaminated and will never produce enough algae to get us off of foreign oil

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